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Leo Egashira | Profile

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Biography

Leo Nobuhiko Egashira was born in Seattle, April 11, 1954. His father was a bilingual (Japanese & English) family physician; his mother was a Japanese-speaking homemaker who had just immigrated a few years earlier; and both paternal grandparents, who were living in the same household, were Japanese-speaking restaurant owners. As the first-born, Leo grew up speaking Japanese, but learned English on TV and from other kids.

The family was Roman Catholic because his grandmother converted prior to World War II in Seattle due to the efforts of Japanese-speaking Maryknoll missionaries. Indeed, the majority of Japanese-American Catholics on the West Coast were the result of Maryknoll conversions. Leo's parents were dutiful in the faith . . . bearing nine children in 10½ years.  

The family lived in Taiwan from 1959 to 1961, when his father was transferred by the U.S. Army. They returned to Seattle in 1961. Leo went to Catholic schools through eighth grade, after which he was switched over to Seattle Public Schools. By this time, he says, “I pretty much knew I was gay by age 10 or 12, and had my first sexual experience by age 18.”

Leo went to college at Harvard from 1972 to 1976, where he became involved in the Harvard Catholic Student Center. He majored in East Asian history and the Japanese and Chinese languages. Going to Harvard was a humbling experience: “I realized that some of us had to comprise the bottom 10% of the class, and I did that pretty well with no apologies.” During this time, Leo was very, very closeted, but somehow managed to go to gay bars in Boston without arousing too much suspicion from his jock roommates.

After graduating from Harvard, he spent a full year in Japan in 1977, studying Japanese and teaching English. The following year, he spent six months in Taiwan, studying Chinese and teaching English. As he states, “This was the only time in my life I was tri-lingual.” However, both his gay life and faith life were on complete hiatus during this 1-1/2 year period.

In 1979 at age 25, Leo entered the MBA program at UC-Berkeley and lived in Oakland for four years. He made-up for the sex and faith hiatus during this period: going to the weekly Newman Center Mass at UC and enjoying the liberating South of Market gay scene in San Francisco. In the early 1980s, he went to his first Dignity/San Francisco liturgy and met one of the men who also attended the Newman Center. He made many lifelong friends there and started attending both Dignity/East Bay and Dignity/SF regularly, even hosting a home liturgy a couple times. The early 1980s was when AIDS was rearing its ugly head, and claimed several of his friends in the Bay Area.

It was probably fortunate for Leo's physical and mental health that in 1983, at age 29, he accepted a job in Fairfield, Iowa, in the southeastern part of the state. There, he got connected into the large rural gay network and would socialize with other gay men in the tristate Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois area. And while he continued to be a DignityUSA member, there was no way to be active in isolation.

Returning back to Seattle at the end of 1986, Leo immediately joined Dignity/Seattle and started working on the monthly newsletter. The 1980s and 1990s were a period of tumult in the Catholic community of Seattle: A very progressive Archbishop Hunthausen was battling the conservative hierarchy in Rome. Leo participated in Soulforce rallies in both Washington, D.C. and at Seattle's St. James Cathedral many times. It was at this point that he started writing analytical and opinion pieces in the Dignity/Seattle Newsletter, which eventually led to interviews by TV and newspaper reporters in the 1990s and 2000s. Leo became more involved in the national DignityUSA organization as a Regional Delegate for Dignity/Seattle, and met many West Coast Dignity colleagues. His first biennial DignityUSA Conference was in 1991.  The speakers and workshops made a very deep impression. He became even more committed to DignityUSA and has attended every conference since then.

Leo met his first partner at the end of 1987. By the fourth year of the relationship, it became apparent that Joseph had AIDS. Leo was diagnosed with HIV in early 1992; Joseph died later in 1992. He also lost his best friend in college at this time and mourned the passing of many friends in the 1990s, including several in Dignity. “This was truly a dark and awful time; were it not for the advent of miracle HIV drugs in the mid-1990s, I would not be alive today. And, were it not for Dignity/Seattle and the Archdiocese of Seattle's Catholic AIDS Ministry, my faith might not be alive today.”

Leo became a Seattle-based, self-employed export broker for the Japanese housing market. When the Japanese recession hit in the early 2000s, all of his customers went bankrupt, and he became “self-unemployed,” i.e., not eligible for unemployment insurance. He had to scramble for a few years cobbling together writing and editing gigs. One of those gigs bore fruit in 2009, and Leo feels extremely fortunate to be hired at age 55 as a Research Coordinator & Editor at the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute at the University of Washington, where Native American colleagues research health disparities among American Indians and pilot strength- and resilience-based interventions. Starting in 2019, most of Leo's work has shifted to increasing public health capacity among tribes. The work is rewarding, especially because he gets to work with and visit community partners throughout “Indian Country.”

Leo's commitment to DignityUSA deepened significantly in early 2005 when he joined the National Board. He immediately assumed the position of Publications Committee Chair responsible for publishing the monthly Dateline newsletter and the Quarterly Voice (QV). Leo wrote, edited, and/or compiled several thematic issues of the QV, most notably the Second Quarter 2009 issue on “Transgender Lives,” the First Quarter 2010 issue on “Misogyny & Homophobia,” and a three-issue compilation of essays on “Transgender Spirituality” by Jim & Evelyn Whitehead (Third Quarter 2014, First Quarter 2015, and Second Quarter 2015). The research and interviews required in putting together DignityUSA publications led Leo to become a strong advocate for transgender people in Dignity. He served as the Board liaison to the Transgender Caucus for several years and helped facilitate transgender workshops at DignityUSA conferences. In researching misogyny in the Church and in Dignity, Leo interviewed leading theologians like John McNeill and came to the strong conviction that misogyny and homophobia were two sides of the same coin--that one cannot properly address homophobia without first addressing misogyny. When there were calls by older, male Dignity members for DignityUSA to focus its energies on only LGBTQ issues, and let women's groups address misogyny, Leo fought back strongly as a male voice for feminism. As Leo states, “I like to think that my passion and conviction led my cisgender male Dignity members to embrace feminism as integral to DignityUSA's mission.” His board advocacy role continued until fall 2016, when he left the board after nearly 12 years of service.

In October 2015, Leo was one of two appointed DignityUSA representatives to the First Assembly of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (GNRC), which was held in Rome. Besides learning from and sharing with kindred spirits from six continents and laying ground rules for governance, DignityUSA's team also made connections with the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See. He also participated in the Second Assembly In Munich, Germany in 2017 and the Third Assembly in Chicago in 2019.

Since 2015, Leo has been on the Steering Committee or Board of Directors for “Generations Aging with Pride,” a local Seattle advocacy organization for LGBTQ seniors.

Other personal facts: Leo has been a non-car owner since 2003 and bicycles 75 miles a week up and down Seattle's hilly terrain. He also continue to backpack and hike, a passion he's had for five decades. Even at age 65 (in 2019), Leo still does weeklong backpacks (sometimes solo) all over North America carrying 50 lbs. of gear and food. During Seattle's notoriously dark and wet winters, he plays bridge or reads and finds solace in the mountains cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing.

(This biographical statement provided by Leo Egashira.)

Biography Date: September 2019

Tags

Catholic (Roman) | Dignity | Soulforce | Hunthausen, Raymond | Seattle | Washington | Author/editor | Global Network of Rainbow Catholics | Transgender activism

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